By Ciaran Cuffe
It’s Culture Night in Galway. Under a small marquee a few steps away from Eyre Square plans are being discussed for the future of Wood Quay, an historic part of the city that has become over-run by traffic and parking in recent years. Students from the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick (SAUL) have been sketching out ideas for the upgrading of this historic streetscape.
Currently the area is a morass of car-parking with a sliver of a park that you’d miss if you blinked while walking past. Wood Quay was one of the earliest inhabited parts of Galway. There was once a Quay where cargo and passenger boats landed from Connemara, and a potato market took place where now there are now only cars. Wood Quay is triangular in shape with narrow footpaths and is surrounded by a mixture of two and three story shops, pubs and houses. The area feels like it was busier in years gone by.
The project is being run by Rosie Webb, the Galway City architect. She is hoping that the project will open up a debate about parks and public space in the city. Local people have been invited to participate, and a handful of them turned up to add their voices to the discussion. An older man raises the problem of an increasing student population who live nearby and party loudly on Thursday nights leaving detritus of urine and vomit behind. A young Brazilian couple take their cat to the small grassed area by the lake, but complain about its lack of maintenance.
Cars are everywhere, parked on footpaths, on double-yellow lines, and in the allocated spaces provided. Some of the students’ projects involve reorganising or removing part of the car parking. Local businesses voice their concerns. A local paint shop owner is worried that less parking means fewer customers, but no-one is really sure.
Perhaps the city could follow the example of the Dublin City Beta projects where changes are made temporarily and can easily be reversed. This might allow a temporary park or performance area to be installed at Wood Quay. If it doesn’t work out it can be removed, and other ideas can be considered or it can simply remain in its current state. This might help avoid the cost over-runs that occurred when the city’s Eyre Square was redesigned a few years ago. It could well turn out that a carefully designed small public park might become a catalyst for the regeneration of this historic area. However, in order for changes to be acceptable they will have to be made in partnership with the area’s residents and businesses.
An important issue that comes up time and time again is the lack of management and maintenance of the public domain. These issues will have to be addressed by the Local Authority and An Garda Síochána if residents are to feel confident about the area’s future. It won’t be easy to achieve though, as Government and elected representatives are under pressure to reduce Local Property Taxes and spending wherever possible. Galway’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism. Certainly Wood Quay is underperforming, and improvements such as introducing a well maintained larger park have the potential to revolutionise the area.
The conundrum in Galway is typical of the challenges facing towns and cities around Ireland. A spiral of decline has led to families living further out of town and commuting in by car. Much of the town centre is left to a transitory population of students and temporary workers who have not the clout or commitment to improve the area that they live in. More parking is then required which consumes the space that could be given to other uses such as parks, playgrounds or markets. One way of breaking this vicious circle is for Councils and citizens to come up with a vision for what improvements it might be possible to achieve in the short to medium term. The people of Wood Quay have yet to agree on the common vision for the future of their area, but the work with the Council, the area’s residents and the students from the University of Limerick appears promising. •